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The First Mass Effect is a Great Game Not Just for its Time, But for All Time

THE MASS EFFECT TRILOGY REVISITED: In the first of our three essays revisiting the Mass Effect trilogy, contributor Doc Burford makes an argument for the original game being the best.

Analysis by Doc Burford, .

"'Dilemma' doesn't begin to describe it," the ad declared. As advertisements go, it was simple, but something about it captured my imagination. The alien was cool and the tank was cooler; but for me, seeing all those stars with their S.O.S. and "signal lost" notifications sealed the deal. I had to buy this game and see what all the fuss was about. I had to play Mass Effect.

To me, this advertisement was a promise; each distress signal was a chance at adventure. Bioware promised over 32 stars and planets to explore, which sounded like a lot, especially a decade ago. Mass Effect delivered on that promise, the first in a series of ambitious, critically acclaimed space operas. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Mass Effect. Since its release in 2007, fans have moaned about the awkward combat, the quirky Mako tank, and the empty planets. "It was good for its time" is the common refrain, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mass Effect is a great game, not just for its time, but for all time.

Meeting Commander Shepard.

Mass Effect begins simply enough: create your character, pick out his or her background, press a button, and then watch a little scene where two characters talk about you. One of the greatest playwrights of all time, David Mamet, once argued that any scene where two characters talk about a third "is a crock of shit," but Mass Effect manages to avoid Mamet's criticism by making that third character you. More importantly, the conversation about you reflects the decisions you made immediately prior. "I am a game about choice," says Mass Effect.

One of the most frequent mistakes video game developers make is that they fail to provide the player sufficient motive. John Wick is a great movie because Wick has a strong motive for going after the bad guys: they killed the puppy that John's late wife gave him. If Wick just decided to kill some dudes one day, it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying. A great game understands the value of motive. Mass Effect is one of those games. That opening conversation isn't just showing you that your choices have consequences, it's also setting up expectations about the sort of person you are.

Immediately after this conversation, you—a soldier for the human Systems Alliance—find yourself on board the Normandy, a top-secret stealth ship on her maiden voyage to a human colony calling for human help. Mass Effect entices you with questions: why is this mission so important? Why is Nihlus, an alien operative known as a Spectre, on the ship? What's going on at Eden Prime, the human colony? Few motivators are as compelling as a question, and Mass Effect offers plenty, using your curiosity as a way to move forward.

Most games begin with a tedious tutorial level, teaching you how to do things like move, crouch, and shoot. Mass Effect chooses to let you soak in the atmosphere instead. You can wander around the Normandy, picking up urgent snippets of conversation. Talking to crewmembers only yields more questions than answers, and everyone points you to Captain Anderson, so off you go to find him.

Eden Prime is the least interesting level in the game, but it offers plenty of interesting questions.

The Captain sends you down to Eden Prime to recover a mysterious alien artifact. Unfortunately the colonists need your help because they're being attacked by evil robots. Eden Prime is also the game's combat training sequence, the least interesting part of the game. To counteract training tedium, Mass Effect alternates training sequences with the introduction of new questions, like "why are the robots turning humans into mechanical zombies?" and "what is that gigantic space ship doing?" and "why did another Spectre, Saren, show up and shoot Nihlus in the back of the head?"

All of these questions push you forward. After all, mission markers are important in helping you understand what to do, but Mass Effect capitalizes on your curiosity as the emotional reason to move forward. You're still playing because you want to, not because the game told you to.

Your excursion ends when you make contact with the alien artifact, which Saren was trying to destroy before he left. It gives you an apocalyptic vision before knocking you out. When you wake up, you're back on board the Normandy on your way to the Citadel to see the Council, which is basically just the United Nations for aliens.

Those aliens, the armor-plated Turians, the aquatic Asari, and the lizard-like Salarians, don't think much of humans. Saren is their James Bond, and now some upstart humans are telling everybody he's a traitor, which they don't take kindly to. There's a lot of talk about how humans need to prove themselves, both from the condescending aliens and the human politicians who have worked so hard to be recognized.

Characters like Nihlus are emblematic of humanity's position as an underdog in the Mass Effect universe.

The worst RPGs I've ever played make you some sort of chosen hero, destined to save the universe because it was foretold in some prophecy or something. There's no investment there, no emotion. If you're destined to succeed, then why make any effort? Even the later Mass Effect games suffered from this; one character literally describes Shepard as "a god" in a particularly-embarrassing Mass Effect 2 conversation.

Mass Effect positions you, as an individual and a human being, as the underdog. Everyone looks down on you. Not only do you have questions that need to be answered, you also have everything to prove. It's a potent cocktail of motivations.

This is the point where most games would dump you back into combat, but not Mass Effect. It's a smarter, more patient game than that. For the time being, you're stuck on the Citadel, trying to find evidence to take Saren down. Every Mass Effect game features the Citadel in some way, but the first game has my favorite iteration. This Citadel is huge, featuring spaces of vast emptiness that convey the Citadel's scale in a way later games never did.

Mass Effect is rich with memorable characters and locations. The wealthy Presidium district is home to bankers and ambassadors, while the Wards house a casino, a shady nightclub, a free clinic, and some shops. In the Presidium, you'll encounter characters like Barla Von, a financier and agent of the mysterious Shadow Broker, or Sha'ira, an Asari consort who has the ears of the rich and powerful. You'll find shadier characters in the Ward, like Schells, an alien who is trying to cheat at gambling, or Harkin, a corrupt cop.

Mass Effect positions you, as an individual and a human being, as the underdog. Everyone looks down on you. Not only do you have questions that need to be answered, you also have everything to prove. It's a potent cocktail of motivations.

You can explore the Citadel for hours, completing a wide variety of assignments for the game's many characters. One moment, you might find yourself obtaining a permit for a floating psychic squid preacher, and the next you might be taking down a crime lord to help an up-and-coming journalist. Mass Effect offers so much to do, and it's content to let you soak up the world and atmosphere before it really begins.

When you're ready, you return to the Council with proof of Saren's wrongdoing. They are reluctant to admit that he may have gone rogue, but decide to make you the first human Spectre, burdened with the responsibility that comes with the position. We have progressed from "you have to prove yourself" to "don't screw this up, Shepard."

Mass Effect is really good at upping the ante. Most games, even Bioware titles, work like this: some big tragedy happens, a world-ending threat is revealed, and you, the world's greatest hero, must conduct a lot of busywork if you want to prevent it. Mass Effect is more gradual and organic. As you become a Spectre, it feels like all of humankind is depending on you, not to save them from some cosmic threat, but to simply prove that humans deserve to be seen as equals. The cosmic horror stuff comes later.

Captain Anderson seals the deal by giving you control over the Normandy, the most advanced ship in humanity's fleet. Time to find out what Saren's up to. With the Normandy at your disposal, the entire galaxy is yours to explore. Fly to any star system, visit any planet, and take on even more dangerous assignments. As you explore, you'll discover so much to see and do.

Mass Effect Andromeda: How Well Does it Balance Action and RPG?

Jaz spends two hours with Bioware's epic space opera, and goes hyperbolic.

The Mass Effect Trilogy Vinyl Soundtrack Review: Future Sounds on Vintage Tech

It may not be an HD remaster, but this best-of music compilation offers a satisfying way to revisit BioWare's RPG hit.

Quest design is hard for even the most seasoned of game developers; even gigantic studios with dozens of shipped titles still manage to deliver boring, rote missions. Too many games feature quest design where players are tasked with locating something and delivering it somewhere. These fetch quests are dull and unmemorable, and even Bioware itself has featured them prominently in their games.

Mass Effect tries for something more. In one mission, Admiral Hackett, from the Systems Alliance, contacts you about a potential embarrassment: a nuclear device, hastily launched during humanity's first contact with the aliens, has just activated in Citadel-controlled space. He wants you to discreetly shut it down before the council finds out. This ties in with the "humanity has to prove itself" theme, and in particular, the burden placed on you as the first human Spectre.

When you find the bomb, you are attacked—it turns out the bomb was a trap set for you. Some pirates with a score to settle sent out the signal, knowing you were nearby and the Alliance would ask you to defuse it. They try to detonate the bomb, assassinating you, but you can defuse it and take them down. Mechanically, it's a simple quest: go somewhere, press some buttons, and shoot some dudes. Bioware's brilliance is in the way they change the narrative context.

Other memorable quests involve tracking down a hacker that turns out to be a rogue AI, talking down a group of angry psychic soldiers after they take civilians hostage, and finding a cow that tries to steal all of your money. So many of Bioware's quests here are great, and the game presents a plethora of ways to deal with them. You could deliver some contraband for a mission, treating it like a fetch quest, or you could take the contraband to the authorities. Or you could bypass the middle man and sell it to the original buyer. Each of these choices will have a different outcome.

Mass Effect's combat feels admittedly clumsy by modern standards, but it doesn't detract from its other qualities.

Mass Effect rarely offers a quest without subverting expectations or offering some kind of interesting twist to the formula. One mission in the game uses the clichéd "kill lots of beasts to find a specific piece of loot" objective, but doing so raises your Renegade score. If you're hoping to play as a heroic Paragon instead, you'll have to do something other than rely on RPG quest design clichés. This kind of clever mission design feels so fresh, even now, that I stopped playing everything I'm playing now, even Horizon: Zero Dawn, to go back through Mass Effect.

It's not a perfect game, mind you. Modern third-person shooters feature things like hit markers, sticky aim, and "hold your breath to steady your sniper rifle" mechanics. Mass Effect lacks many modern conveniences; and some mechanics, like its cover system, seem incredibly dated. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Casablanca may be an old movie, limited by lighting and film stock technology of the day, but it's still a great movie. Mass Effect is the same way: it's dated in some ways, but still enjoyable as heck, and even features some great ideas that I wish newer games would steal.

Consider the gun mods: I've played plenty of games with gun mods, but these mods rarely have an appreciable impact on a gun's performance. Mass Effect offers a plethora of modifications; rather than a 1% increase here or a +2 bonus there, it gives you shredder rounds with a 25% bonus towards fleshy enemies, or +90 shields. By the end of the game, I had built an Infiltrator that could take two direct rounds from a mighty Geth Colossus, with perfect aim and massive damage bonuses against whatever I was facing that particular encounter.

This freedom of choice was combined with a genuine sense of progression: I've played plenty of games where enemy power keeps up with player power and the difficulty curve never changes. Mass Effect actually let me feel like I was growing, becoming the awesome Spectre I had worked so hard to become. It is one of the only games with a progression system where I felt like I was becoming increasingly powerful.

Another cool system is the game's use of physics. In most games, if you run into an enemy player, nothing will happen. At best, you'll knock them back. Mass Effect brings physics into the equation. Hit an enemy hard enough and he'll fall over, crumpling into a heap. It's not just knockback—he'll literally fall over and have to stand back up. Earlier, I found myself facing off against a bunch of enemy drones. With one punch, I knocked a few over and mopped them up with my shotgun. It felt great! I wish more shooters had that kind of physicality.

Across the universe.

Eventually, you'll have to get back to the main quest. Bioware is wonderful with its breadcrumbs, especially in Mass Effect. So many games, even The Witcher 3, one of my favorite games, give you some kind of overarching goal and then a lot of busywork to actually get there. Not Mass Effect. When you get to Feros, one of the planets in the main quest, you're immediately tasked with holding back a robotic invasion. Once you've beaten the robots back, it seems like there's time for a breather. You're even given a series of deceptively-simple fetch quests like "find power cells" or "kill monsters for meat."

Feros is unique in that these quests are all stereotypical RPG fare and it has more of these than any other locations in the game, but that's because Bioware is just waiting to subvert them. The quests are extremely easy to complete, posing no challenge at all. They exist to lure you into a false sense of security; here is the most comfortable, traditional quest you could possibly encounter. As you explore the tunnels, you'll run into a character, Ian, who hints that the colony is being mind-controlled.

Mass Effect could take the generic RPG route and let you get bored with stereotypical fetch quests. Instead, it pokes fun at them, then adds a new wrinkle to the narrative. As you explore, this narrative unfolds in surprising ways. Noveria, the other major location in the game, unfolds in a completely different but equally surprising way.

Your companions are hugely important as well. Plenty of games have companions, but not many feature characters as interesting as Mass Effect's. Take Ashley, for instance. She's often mischaracterized as a racist. This is inaccurate; she's a soldier who doesn't think non-military personnel should have access to military secrets, and, having been trained her whole life to fight aliens, she's initially distrustful of them. Throughout the course of the game, she warms up to them, in part thanks to your conversations.

Another companion is Garrus, a mentally unstable Turian who once ordered the deaths of dozens of civilians in a misguided attempt to stop a single fugitive. Years later, he still hasn't realized that ordering the deaths of civilians to stop one man is wrong. He idolizes the Spectres because he loves the idea of being a thug with no rules. He says he wants to do good, but so does Dirty Harry, and he's a maniac. Shepard has the option to call him a terrorist with a badge, which he is. Despite being a horrible fascist, Garrus can be redeemed. The more missions you to together, the more he matures, realizing that his whole Punisher routine is the wrong thing to do.

Then there's the Mako.

In Mass Effect 2, this character growth is thrown out the window so Garrus can be an edgy Space Punisher who thinks he's Batman. Other RPGs, even Mass Effect 2, use characters as simplistic info dumps, rather than actual characters. Any growth comes in the form of a single mission. "Shoot someone in the face and win my undying love," the characters proclaim. Mass Effect is more sophisticated, emphasizing relationship-building. Who you choose to be in the game directly influences who your friends will become. So much of Mass Effect's greatness comes from patience: you have to be converse with its characters frequently.

Then there's the Mako.

I'll be the first to admit that the Mako is a weird, messy tank that explores mostly barren, dull worlds, but it is also one of my favorite single things in a video game. Mass Effect is a game that promises a lot. That first ad, which featured a galaxy of S.O.S. and a crew of three folks standing around the Mako, promised a galaxy to explore.

The problem with most space games is that they're too empty. Everyone I know who's picked up something like Elite Dangerous or No Man's Sky, all starry-eyed at the prospect of an entire galaxy to explore, has come back bored. Space is big, and in that bigness, there's an awful lot of nothing. On the flipside, some games have tried to offer so much gameplay diversity that they end up being dissatisfying—one "planet" in Mass Effect 2 was just a platform with a single puzzle to solve. Another simply involved walking through the ultra-linear remains of a space ship until you found a terminal and pressed a button. It isn't compelling or fun.

With Mass Effect, you have the Mako. Sometimes, you find interesting things on a planet; maybe a compound of religious fanatics or a space cow that tries to steal all your money. Other times, you find barren worlds, with nothing more than empty wreckage, infuriating hills to climb, and some natural resources to claim.

That's the beauty of it. Mass Effect offers just enough nothing to make the substantial stuff feel so much more substantial. Sure, the planets feel half-finished, with frustrating, unrealistic mountains for the Mako to climb. But wow, sometimes just cruising through a valley on a distant planet while looking around at the magnificent desolation of these worlds is enough. When you do find things, it's thrilling. Bioware gives you just enough boredom to make discovery still feel like discovery.

Some players may feel frustrated at the number of recycled assets in Mass Effect's world. I was one of them. Over time, my opinion softened; it made sense that colonies on distant worlds would feature prefabricated structures. Recycling assets made them feel mass-produced and sterile, giving the world a character of its own.

The art direction on the whole is amazing: Noveria's brutalist, hard-edged concrete and zen gardens are beautiful. Feros' magnificent, war-torn sky bridge is a wonder to behold, floating above the clouds, illuminated by tracer fire. The Citadel, with its broad, upward-flowing horizon looks like something out of a 1970s science book, back when humanity was still enthusiastic about space exploration. Mass Effect attempts to evoke this late-70s, early-80s sci-fi vibe by borrowing heavily from the art of famed sci-fi and industrial artist Syd Mead. One graphics option attempts to replicate film grain, to varying degrees of success.

Individual props look like they're taken from sci-fi movies of the era; one model in particular has these nice, soft curves that feel like they're taken from the set of Alien. The probes look like they're from early Star Trek episodes.

The soundtrack is fascinating too—sci-fi games now tend to borrow inspiration from Hans Zimmer and Tron: Legacy, which is great, but Mass Effect's soundtrack is something else. With its heavy, almost exclusive use of quiet synths, Mass Effect sounds more like Vangelis than anything else, but it still has a presence all of its own. As soon as I hear the opening chords of Wall and Hulick's Mass Effect Theme, I'm back there, in the Normandy, exploring the galaxy with my crew.

Mass Effect builds to an amazing conclusion. You, the underdog human, against Saren, the golden boy of the Council, who is being mind-controlled by an ancient alien, Sovereign, that has been masquerading as his ship. You fight your way through a dead alien world, teleporting into the Citadel, which is actually a giant beacon meant to summon Sovereign's friends from their deep slumber. By slowly building up to this galaxy-destroying threat, Mass Effect's conclusion has a lot more weight. Everything you've earned will be all for nothing if you don't stop Sovereign. What you do here matters.

Mass Effect features a galaxy to explore, urging players onward by making them an underdog with a mystery to solve. Its gameplay mechanics are interesting and worth revisiting. The way Bioware deftly subverts so many quest design clichés is something every quest designer should learn from. Mass Effect is a patient game too; it lets you spend time on the Normandy, isn't afraid to hide the nuances of its characters behind a half a dozen conversations. The world-ending threat isn't introduced until the end of the game.

Yes, Mass Effect has aged. Yes, it's derivative sci-fi. Yes, there are better RPGs. But it's a great and special game, and it's done incredible things that, to this day, have never been matched. By being patient and giving players an emotional reason to always keep moving forward, Bioware delivered one of the strongest adventures I've ever had the pleasure of playing. When I booted up Mass Effect in preparation for this piece, I was hoping to capture some screenshots and familiarize myself with some of the systems. Now I've put everything else on hold so I could finish it for the third time. Mass Effect delivered on its promise. "Great" doesn't even begin to describe it.

Screenshots courtesy of MobyGames.

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Comments 24

  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #1 NiceGuyNeon 9 months ago
    In terms of individual games, I found Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 to be the very best of the last generation. But when I look at Mass Effect as the full picture, I think it's the best. All three games are amazing. They aren't without faults, but they are absolutely wonderful. And the main reason: they are interesting.

    To that end I have always found the first game to be the most interesting and the second game to be the least. Yes gameplay became more refined and gratifying in 2 and 3, but that messy combat of the original isn't necessarily dated, it's just messy. I felt this with The Witcher which came out at the same time. It isn't as gratifying as the sequels but combat is more interesting and varied. But it's messy.

    There's beauty to be found in a mess though and Mass Effect's beauty comes from openness, interesting locations, admiration of sci-fi tropes and how it can subvert them. The narrative is the best by far, your nemesis is a rival on equal footing and

    SPOILERS

    you can talk him into realizing the error of his ways.

    END SPOILERS

    The later games were still interesting in their own ways, but not to the extent of the original. The sequel tries to be Seven Samurai in space (maybe there's a better comparison) and it definitely culminates in one of the most exciting sequences in gaming ever. But it feels like a series of short stories building up to the one moment. Mass Effect really focuses on your journey, your development, your relationships, your mission.

    Ultimately I think Mass Effect 3 is the most fun, but it's a series of endings with fun combat. None of it works without the foundation of excellence laid by the original game.

    I've played this trilogy multiple times. It is one of my top five RPGS ever made. It's a masterpiece and when I start the first one (I always start with the original) I play through to the end of the third. I'm glad it exists. I don't know if Andromeda is something I want just yet. I don't have the same faith in BioWare I did back in 2007. But the original trilogy, and especially this original game, holds a very special place in my heart.
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  • Avatar for Lane #2 Lane 9 months ago
    The first game was always my favorite. Sure, there were annoying elements, but I felt something special was lost in the streamlining that occurred with its sequels.

    Edit: I've been playing through ME1 this weekend for the first time in several years, and it still holds up. Even the Mako isn't nearly as bad as I remember. As long as you don't try to climb sheer cliffs (which are easily identifiable via the map), it's a perfectly serviceable means for getting around.Edited March 2017 by Lane
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  • Avatar for Namevah #3 Namevah 9 months ago
    The first Mass Effect is a game I'd rather experience again by watching the cutscenes on YouTube. I tried replaying it a few months ago, but just couldn't get past the shooting mechanics. Why is the elite N7 soldier Shepard such a bad shot? I stopped playing after gaining control of the Normandy, unwilling to suffer through more combat (even on the easiest difficulty). Can't I spend the game only chatting up aliens instead?
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  • Avatar for Dorchadas #4 Dorchadas 9 months ago
    Yes, exactly. Mass Effect I is my favorite game to the trilogy, and I prefer its approach to such a degree that I was lukewarm on II and hated III from the first five minutes when Shepard, like the A Team, was in jail for a crime he didn't commit.

    (I never played Arrival, you see, and I was reinstated as a Spectre, so between games Shepard turned himself in for no reason to a government who had no direct authority over him. Okay)

    One of the best parts of ME1 is that it emphasizes the science in science fiction. True, a lot of it is in the codex, but there's thought put into how space battles would work, how fleets don't engage so they're firing toward garden worlds, how Element Zero would affect weaponry, how biotics would play out, etc.

    And then in ME3 the Turian Fleet just sits in front of Palaven and lets the Reapers fire straight at them and at their homeworld behind them. Sigh.

    But my favorite part, the part that is completely forgotten in the sequels, is that ME1 Shepard is important because of knowledge. They aren't the chosen one, they aren't born special, they aren't "a bloody icon"...they just happen to be the greatest living expert on Prothean language and culture, which eminently qualifies them to deal with the situation they find themselves in.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #5 NiceGuyNeon 9 months ago
    I really dig Mass Effect's approach to classes as well. The later 2 games just make the combat action, and you get some abilities based on your class. In the original you feel improvement as you level up and it feels great. But what I really dug about Mass Effect was that you had six choices: combat, tech/hacker, biotic, tech-bio mix, shotgun specialist with bio, sniper specialist with tech.

    Basically everyone can use a pistol, but only if you're a soldier can you use every weapon skillfully. You play to a specific style which we kind of move away from in most major games these days.

    I was always the shotgun-biotic guy. I loved getting in close, wrecking enemies with powers and blasting them point blank. Similarly you could be the sniper-tech guy, hacking from a distance and firing shots from afar. Or if you were all about specialization you could do that. Or if you want weapon variety go for the soldier. The classes opened up quite a few fun gameplay possibilities that we don't see as often in most major games now.

    Mass Effect 2 and 3, while gratifying to play didn't have that immediate progression of improvement. You were as a good a shot as your skills allowed. In Mass Effect though you were as good as the abilities you invested in, increasing accuracy, powers, etc.
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  • Avatar for dard410 #6 dard410 9 months ago
    Completely agree with this. The first ME game had an innovative approach to RPGs. This is one of the reasons why I really hope Bioware releases an HD remaster of the ME trilogy. So many of the problems with ME1, including the Mako, combat, and graphics, could easily be improved in a rerelease. The original Mass Effect deserve to be played for years to come, but I'm afraid it will become a forgotten gem. It is sad though that Bioware went from a company that poked fun at traditional RPG fetch quests in ME1 to one that went overboard with them in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
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  • Avatar for ANewtypeCentury #7 ANewtypeCentury 9 months ago
    To this day, I am still crazy about Mass Effect 1. It feels so genuinely futuristic (in that particular 80's sci-fi way,) that I have honestly never been able to get through Mass Effect 2. Have gotten to the half-way point and farther, but it's such a bastardization of what the first game represented that I have deleted no less than 3 ME2 save files in disgust.

    Your article really gets down to the why of it. It doesn't feel like an action movie, or a big blockbuster piece of entertainment, though it does play out like that at times: those details make the game. The fact that the conversations are actually conversations , which is very difficult to get right - it feels spontaneous and aimed at you. Makes it so you genuinely agonize over what dialog trees will be explored (even when not plot/romance related.) I did this because it felt like, depending on my response, I could affect these characters, and their reactions would change how both I saw them, and how they would see me.

    The Codex must get special mention as well. Bioware really spent the time to think about how mass effects would change every aspect of culture; each entry is so full of minute details that every time I play, I literally start out by reading through the entire catalog. Historical events, scientific explanations, weapons tech, armor, general points of interest - it's a fleshed out universe which is much wider than the Normandy because Bioware allows it to be.

    The visual design and music is also both top notch, and though its evocative of other works at time, it never feels like it was lifted from another property. Mass Effect 1 always feels like its own beast. Just reading you article and writing this response makes me want to play it again, it's so good. I only wish the entire series had evolved along its evolutionary branch, instead of the approach it eventually did take. What a series that would be!
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  • Avatar for nickpowell07 #8 nickpowell07 9 months ago
    "The worst RPGs I've ever played make you some sort of chosen hero, destined to save the universe because it was foretold in some prophecy or something. There's no investment there, no emotion. If you're destined to succeed, then why make any effort? Even the later Mass Effect games suffered from this; "

    It absolutely does this! This is the focus of the beginning of the game. It's a Bioware game, this is how they tell stories. Your bloody name is 'Shepard'.

    "Mass Effect positions you, as an individual and a human being, as the underdog."

    The game repeatedly tells you you're an underdog but never actually makes you feel it. You are a super-awesome war hero (without being shown why). You are told you're chosen, and the Council chooses you, and you go off and do whatever you want.

    And I would argue that the storytelling is just generally bad. Lots of telling and little showing. The premise of the plot is tremendous, with these Lovecraftian bioships waiting in the depths of space … so the game starts by displaying in broad daylight the entirety of one of them, telling you it's enormous (it's about average as far as sci-fi ships go), and not giving it anything terrifying to do. The hive-cleavage-lady was an interesting character … who, immediately after explaining, the game thrusts at you with a generic boss battle, and that's the last of her. You give Sovereign a call and, and he's like 'Cool! I'll just explain the entirety of our galactic plan!' Which is the sort of thing that would be fine if they'd actually stuck to that 'old sci-fi pulp' vibe they said they were attempting and made it a little tongue-in-cheek … but that isn't actually in the DNA of this game. It's very earnest and drab.

    I'll give them credit for attempting it, and for injecting *some* moral complexity into the game, so perhaps history will look at this as an important step in the evolution of game storytelling ... but we shouldn't be looking at it *now* as a success. We should be past it. There are way too many flaws in it. And not the kind of flaws exhibited by, say, MGS, which I hate but is at least a creative, idiosyncratic work by an auteur, but the kind of flaws of just being bad at a bunch of stuff that it believes it's great at.
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  • Avatar for descent303 #9 descent303 9 months ago
    I don't really understand the fawning over the first game. It was great and still is in a lot of ways, but this piece is far too praising.

    So now we're even pretending that Ash isn't a terribly boring character?

    The modifications were a buttload of busy work with a clumsy inventory system. It's ridiculous to pretend that this offered you some great choices because you could pick between all these different ammo types. Tungsten and Shredder were the only 2 worth using, and this system was better refined in 2 and 3.

    Choices were something that were far more fleshed out in the later games. In one it still followed the same old good/bad dichotomy. Basically you defeat an enemy and if you're good you let them live, if you're bad you execute them. 3 especially blurred the lines here. I've not played a single other game that compelled me to shoot a dear friend in the back, which then led to a fatal confrontation with another friend, then above all, allowed me to express regret about the outcome, rather than being actually evil. I've never been moved to tears playing any game, but damn this whole arc came close.

    The Mako was just awful. As were the planets you landed on. I agree that this has not been handled well in any of the games really, the problems mentioned in the article certainly exist. However, nothing was worse than the cookie cutter planets with their carbon copy buildings.

    The guns sucked and actually gave you very little choice compared to the later games. You were almost forced into just being proficient with 1 or 2 and then you just carried the others around as decoration.

    The author here says that the game let you feel more powerful as you went on rather than enemies just keeping up with you. This is true in the sense that it was in the witcher 2. This sense being that the mechanics were functionally broken for the first 1/3 of the game and then you became stupidly OP by the end.

    This was my favourite ever game when it came out. That changed when 2 came out. That changed when 3 came out. It's a wonderful story, but this game did many things horribly wrong and in trying to go back to do a full 1-3 playthrough I found it handled so badly that it was unplayable. God, even 2 handles terribly compared to 3.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #10 Roto13 9 months ago
    You are greatly overpraising the sidequests. They're almost all the same. Go to a barren planet, drive the Mako to one of three or four different possible buildings (because they reuse the same buildings over and over and over again, which is a huge flaw), shoot everyone inside, then talk to someone or find something. There's very little beyond that.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #11 chaoticBeat 9 months ago
    That music is so good.
    "Mass Effect positions you, as an individual and a human being, as the underdog. Everyone looks down on you. Not only do you have questions that need to be answered, you also have everything to prove. It's a potent cocktail of motivations."
    Yes!!!
    I just wanted to say that this was an extremely well written article. I'm so happy that we are getting a new game to cap off this remembrance. It's been so long since 3 that it's been hard to get reinvested and excited again and now Andromeda is right around the corner.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #12 link6616 9 months ago
    As someone who never really came to mass effect when it was relevant (I bought the trilogy on PS3 for $5 in a sale for reference) I always wanted to like the series. But the gameplay always got in the way for me.

    However, it lead to a fairly nifty line for my dating profile ("You play mass effect and I'll watch while playing dragon quest on my DS and watching you play") Which I had made a more interesting line at the time. And was very successful... so I have to at least thank mass effect for that. (Although none of the relationships lasted long enough to finish any of the games...)
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  • Avatar for DocBurford #13 DocBurford 9 months ago
    @Namevah Shepard's a bad shot because Mass Effect is an RPG, really. It was the second to last true RPG Bioware made, and I'm sure the RPG purists would be mad at that, but a big part of the RPG idea is that players are actually supposed to develop over time. Way too many "RPGs" these days give you meaningless progression systems (get a 5% bonus on a skill!), stuff that rarely feels like a significant improvement. With Mass Effect, you go from being a bad shot early on to a GREAT shot by the end. The sense of progression feels better.

    Does it make sense in the lore? No. But lore is way less important than how the mechanics make you feel as you play through the game.
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  • Avatar for DocBurford #14 DocBurford 9 months ago
    @Dorchadas There's definitely this great sense of hard sci-fi in the game, but at the same time, it's not really HARD, y'know? It's more like The Expanse, which kinda tries to do hard SF, but never goes all out with it. Mass Effect borrows liberally from Revelation Space, which is true hard SF, and I think that had a tremendous impact on the game.
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  • Avatar for DocBurford #15 DocBurford 9 months ago
    @nickpowell07 You know you're gonna get there, but you're not there yet. That makes all the difference. Yes, absolutely, in any game you play, you're gonna be the hero by the end. It's true of most fiction too. We read fiction because we want to follow the protagonist's interesting journey. We may know the outcome already. Death may not matter to us because we can reload at any time... but creating a SENSE of peril, creating a SENSE of needing to prove yourself? That's what matters.

    Gordon Freeman's journey through Black Mesa, first as a guy everyone's impatient with, then as a guy people ask for help, then as a person people actually rely on... that journey creates a powerful sensation in the player. We all know he's gonna get to the end, because we can always reload, but the fiction, if we let it (and our relationship with fiction is a cooperative one that requires a give and take between player and story), gives us the feelings of "I might not make it" and "wow, I'm proving myself to these guys."

    Just because the end is known doesn't mean the journey can't delight.

    It's up to you whether you want to let it.
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  • Avatar for DocBurford #16 DocBurford 9 months ago
    @Roto13 Mechanically, yes. Contextually, no. Even The Witcher 3's lauded Bloody Baron quest is mostly just some conversations and following batman vision everywhere. What makes Bloody Baron (and Mass Effect's) quests so interesting is how they're contextualized in interesting ways. It's more about expectations and how they're subverted than anything else. The brilliance here is in the narrative fiction and how it's treated, rather than the fact that the quest is just "walk somewhere, press some buttons, and walk somewhere else."

    Mechanically interesting quests are EXTREMELY rare and VERY hard to design, both because they're labor-intensive and because the amount of verbs available at a player's disposal are often very limited. Only verb-heavy games like STALKER or Breath of the Wild can really opt to do interesting stuff with quests.

    The cool thing about the prefab buildings is that they give this sense that the universe is actually, like, in the process of being discovered. What I mean is... if you're going into space, and you're doing it en masse, you're gonna want to engage in mass production. Titanfall 2 has a great level that shows this process in action. Mass Effect establishes that fiction (iirc there's actually stuff about colonialization and prefabs in the encyclopedia somewhere) through asset reuse.

    Would I love a million detailed bespoke assets with much stronger environmental storytelling? Absolutely. I would. But the idea that someone's out there mass-producing a ton of cheap structures to be shipped into space makes perfect sense to me.

    I am annoyed that they use red rock on the MOON, though, in one of the interiors. That makes no sense.
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  • Avatar for retr0gamer #17 retr0gamer 9 months ago
    Giving an explanation for the prefab planetary dungeons and empty planets is all well and good but that's just ignoring what they are, bad game design. They just aren't fun at all and bored me to big fat salty tears.

    I feel mass effect has aged pretty badly and it's only real claim was being a big game during the early last gen post release drought. It's not bad but it's just a bog standard dnd RPG with a sci fi luck of paint. There's far better rpg games out there deserving if the acclaim, ones with better writing, less janky combat and frankly no broken Mako sections.
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  • Avatar for Talraen #18 Talraen 9 months ago
    I thought ME1 had an amazingly well-told story, but after the combat mechanics of ME2 turned out to be so much better, it's hard to go back to the original.
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  • Avatar for Outrider #19 Outrider 9 months ago
    Mass Effect 2 is like... one of my favorite games ever. The characters are great, the combat hits a satisfying balance between shooter and RPG mechanics, and it builds up to a really satisfying final dungeon (and a less than satisfying final boss).

    But the thing is? You're not wrong about the original Mass Effect. Maybe it's because it was a little clunky and the rest of the series leaned hard into standard third-person shooter gameplay, but so much about the first ME game feels so unique. This is a game that I think back to and think "man, I wish more games did that." The setting feels so vast and the world building is excellent. Yeah, the gameplay isn't always great compared to other games that focus on shooting (or driving or whatever), but it has a certain charm and does what it needs to do.

    One thing that I genuinely miss about the first Mass Effect's combat was the sense of scale. Sometimes you'll be driving around on a planet and spot a bunch of Geth far off in the distance. You can pop out of your Mako, pull out your sniper rifle, and start taking them down from a mile away. It's something that is missing from the linear levels of ME2 and ME3, and honestly, that sense of verticality and exploration mixed with dynamic combat is something I haven't really felt until Breath of the Wild (which is a weird comparison I never expected to make, but here we are).

    So... while I still think ME2 is my favorite game in the series (and mechanically, the best "game"), I simply can't argue against the idea that the first ME is the more interesting title and, probably, the most important. ME2 is great, but it's great because of the first ME, and while there have been dozens of games that play like ME2/3, I don't know of anything that feels like the first ME.
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #20 Mooglepies 9 months ago
    The first game in the series is far and away the most interesting in terms of its plot and it's approach to characters, but it's also the only game in the series I wouldn't play again. The plot elements and the execution of the dialogue hold up very well even today but I'm just not willing to put up with the rest of the game to get at it.

    Ultimately (and this is something I think was glossed over in the article), the mechanics and execution for combat aren't just dated and clunky now, after 2 more games in the series, but they were considered the same all the way back in 2007. Certainly I can vividly remember conversations with friends enthused at the story elements but utterly disdainful about the core gameplay.

    I look forward to the other parts of this series, this was interesting even if there were large parts I disagreed with.
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  • Avatar for Dorchadas #21 Dorchadas 9 months ago
    @DocBurford That's fair enough. But at least the tried to be systematic about it! The mass effect is the one impossible thing and everything else flows from that.

    (At least originally. Nothing makes sense later, but...)

    Also, I wish they had taken more from Revelation Space. The Reapers would have been a lot easier to take as a serious threat if they deconstructed moons to blow up planets instead of always going in guns blazing.
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  • Avatar for yuberus #22 yuberus 9 months ago
    I've played through the trilogy a few times, but each time it's harder to get back to Mass Effect 1. I love the storytelling and the main questline, but the empty planets and time spent dragging the Mako up ridiculously steep slopes wears out its welcome pretty quick (to say nothing over the insane amount of loot you get for a limited inventory space). I can get past the jankier combat, but having to spend 20 minutes equipping people and clearing out junk from my inventory after 20 minutes of driving up a series of hills always makes me wonder if I should just start at 2 next time around.

    It is, however, probably the closest I'll ever get to a modern Babylon 5 game, which does go a ways for me.Edited March 2017 by yuberus
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #23 Roto13 8 months ago
    @retr0gamer This, exactly. You can come up with some in-universe excuse for why there are only five buildings in the entire galaxy, but that doesn't make the design any less cheap and repetitive.
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  • Avatar for garion333 #24 garion333 8 months ago
    Great article!
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